Political Science students and faculty have teamed up to document the role of universities in securing labor rights for apparel workers. The Brand Responsibility Project addresses the relationship between multinational corporations—including Nike Inc. and Russell Athletics—and workers in Central America, looking at cases in which subcontractors have violated the labor rights of their employees. In each case, workers, activists, and consumers succeeded in pressuring global brands to take responsibility for violations committed by their subcontractors.
In January of 2009, two apparel factories in Honduras, VisionTex and Hugger, declared bankruptcy and closed after learning that Nike Inc. would no longer be placing orders with them. Each factory’s employees were terminated without severance or the back pay owed to them under Honduran law. Honduran labor union, Central General de Trabajadores (CGT), maintained that because the factories had declared bankruptcy when Nike was the global brand at the apex of the supply chain, then Nike was legally and morally liable. Nike adamantly denied responsibility, declaring that domestic and international attention should be directed towards the owners of the subcontracted factories. Despite demonstrating significant resolve on this issue, in July 2010 Nike announced that it had set aside a compensation and priority-rehiring package for the terminated employees amounting to almost two million dollars.
Immediately after Nike announced their compensation and priority-rehiring package, Professor Margaret Levi, who previously chaired the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies, decided that the process of how the settlement had been reached should be documented, preserved, and studied. Professor Levi currently chairs the University of Washington’s Advisory Committee on Trademarks and Licensing (ACTL). ACTL reviews reports of labor violations in the supply chain of products that end up decorated with the Husky logo. The ACTL reviews each case of alleged labor violations in the UW trademarked goods supply chain and advises the University President as to whether or not the licensee has violated the UW’s Code of Conduct. Recognizing the value of documenting the Nike case, the ACTL provided the seed money to create the Brand Responsibility Project (BRP).
To begin the project, Levi recruited two doctoral students in the Political Science Department who work on comparative politics and socio-legal studies: Anne Greenleaf and Milli Lake. Greenleaf and Lake immediately began the process of interviewing key stakeholders that had taken part in the case, particularly members of ACTL at the University of Washington. Undergraduates in Levi’s Introduction to Labor Studies course were later invited to join the project as researchers. They dedicated their time to reading and reviewing transcripts as well as writing and presenting their own analysis of the events. For undergraduate students, this project provided an opportunity for direct research experience and also gave them an opportunity to participate in a conference held at the University of Washington campus on supply chains and labor rights.
After successfully applying for a Royalty Research Fund Grant, as well as grants from the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies, Lake and Greenleaf were able to make a month long trip to Honduras and Guatemala to interview workers, NGOs, independent monitoring organizations and union leaders. This important period of fieldwork yielded some of the fascinating interviews now available online through the digital archive. Upon return, Lake and Greenleaf again worked with undergraduate students to create the web presence for the project and sort through the large amount of material that Lake and Greenleaf had collected in Central America. The team worked closely with Labor Archivist, Conor Casey, who helped ensure that the documentation created and collected in the project would be accessible to the public. The team also worked with other scholars through a physical and digital archive hosted by the Labor Archives of Washington State Special Collections Unit at the University of Washington Library.
The digital archive is now live and can be accessed at http://depts.washington.edu/brandrp/index.html. In addition to creating a public archive, Levi, Lake and Greenleaf are also engaged in analyzing the data they have collected, and are producing a series of scholarly publications on labor rights campaigns.
Anne Greenleaf is a doctoral student in the Political Science Department who studies comparative politics with a focus on China, labor studies, and socio-legal issues.
Milli Lake is a doctoral student in the Political Science Department who studies comparative politics with a focus on Sub-Saharan Africa and socio-legal issues.
Margaret Levi is the Jere L. Bacharach Professor of International Studies at the University of Washington, and Chair of U.S. Politics in the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.